The War on Minneapolis

Make no mistake: the police are at war, and have always been at war

For many (most) white Americans, and certainly for most (if not all) Americans with a significant degree of wealth, it is all too easy to divorce the bad behavior of individual cops (the ones that happen to get caught) from the practice of policing itself. While Minneapolis and the rest of the nation come to terms with the murder of George Floyd, it’s important to understand that his killer could have been nearly anyone with a badge.

George Floyd is the victim of one particular cop, sure. He’s also a victim of the system that uses the police to enforce the social order. For that is the real job of the police—not justice, but to keep the system running smoothly. That’s why peaceful protest coming from the left is met with flash grenades, CS gas, and rubber bullets, while right-wing militia-types are allowed to skirt the line between protest and armed revolt without even a shrug. The former is a challenge to those in power, and is therefore seen as a threat.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a couple of items from the book Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall:

Chokehold: Strangulation, asphyxiation, choking—these have long been mainstays of cops whether in liberal democratic or totalitarian regimes. Robbing the breath of someone held in state custody—detained, arrested, interrogated, imprisoned—is a central mode of police control and coercion. A vast catalog of strangulation and asphyxiation techniques has been designed, used, criticized, abandoned, and reformed over the years.

War: Make no mistake: the police are at war, and have always been at war. They wage war on crime and a war on drugs and a war on terror, all of which emerged from a war on poverty. Policing is a form of domestic warfare, both in how police talk about policing and in how the state carries it out. The rhetoric of war is thus not a metaphor. It comes from the material realities of manufacturing and reproducing an order of racial capitalism.… [B]lack urban communities have long described police as an occupying army and the ghetto as an internal colony. They use the language of war because policing is war. Life in the ghetto is experienced as violent occupation.

Crowds: There is revolutionary potential in a crowd. It is always the crowd that threatens the order that police so methodically keep. Cops are scared of crowds…. To police, the potential disorder of a crowd makes it always a threat, always loaded with revolutionary possibility. [French sociologist Gustave] Le Bon describes a crowd as having a collective mentality. In the crowd people are suddenly put “in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel.” Le Bon sees in a crowd a kind of “hypnotic order,” and therefore the crowd is always dangerous to bourgeois order. It is in the crowd that a new view of society can emerge, one in which the otherwise stable forms of capitalism suddenly appear fragile, and egalitarian alternatives might appear possible. 

One thing connecting imperialism abroad (the War on Terror) with imperialism at home (policing) is the practice of counterinsurgency. Here are some highlights from a conversation I had with Kristian Williams (the author Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination) on the subject:

KRISTIAN WILLIAMS: The main argument I make in Our Enemies in Blue is that if you want to understand what the police do, and this is true really at any level — the officer on the beat, all the way up to policy decisions — you’re better off not thinking of it in terms of crime-fighting, or law enforcement, or any of that sort of “cop show” kind of stuff. What you need to do instead is look at the existing distribution of power in a society. And in general, the police are going to behave in ways that protect the position of powerful people and keep powerless people at the bottom of the hierarchy. And once I had that realization, all of those things that I was talking about sort of just fell into place.

Racial profiling, for example. Every credible study on it has shown that it does nothing to affect rates of crime, or get guns or drugs off the street. Any of that stuff. But it does do a good job of reinforcing the marginal position of people of color, and Black people in particular. Maybe it’s not a mistake. Maybe that’s the point.

FAILED STATE UPDATE: How did you become aware of COIN [counterinsurgency] being adopted by police departments?

KRISTIAN WILLIAMS: In The New State Repression (1985), Ken Lawrence makes the argument that the general philosophy of political repression in the United States at that point was in the process of transitioning, from the sort of J. Edgar Hoover model of enemies lists and conspiracy theories, trying to trace every social movement back to Communist puppet masters in Moscow, to a counterinsurgency model, which saw unrest as an organic part of society, and having social causes, not simply being the result of foreign machinations. That pamphlet goes into some of the details of what that transition means, organizationally. It relies heavily on the work of Frank Kitson, who was a British military officer who spent his career trying to hold the empire together, at its sort of ragged edges. And Kitson’s book is one of the founding documents of counterinsurgency as a branch of thought.

The Lawrence book led me to Kitson. A lot of the kinds of things that Kitson was talking about in the context of colonial warfare and trying to re-establish or reassert the authority of the British government in places like Kenya or Aden were immediately familiar to me from some of the research that I had been doing about policing and the way that police were operating and especially the development of community policing.

FAILED STATE UPDATE: Is the domestic use of COIN something that’s recognized or admitted to on the law enforcement side? Is that something that comes up in their literature?

KRISTIAN WILLIAMS: When I first wrote Our Enemies in Blue in 2004, the part where I talk about counterinsurgency, I specifically talk about militarization and community policing. And I say that, rather than seeing them as two competing or sometimes conflicting ideologies of policing, they were actually complementary elements of a single coherent strategy, and that strategy is counterinsurgency. At the time, I was pretty apprehensive about making that argument. It’s where the evidence led me, it was analytically the way that I had of making sense of what the data show, but it does seem kind of loony, you know?

Fast forward a few years, and in the meantime the United States invaded Iraq, the military found itself stuck in a war that it really didn’t have a very good idea how to fight, the Army turned away from doctrines involving not committing ground troops and ruling by overwhelming airpower, and started investigating counterinsurgency again. And the place where they turned to relearn counterinsurgency warfare was American police departments.

The military literature, especially from that period shortly after the invasion of Iraq and really peaking just before the disgrace of General Petraeus, the military literature is full of all these instances of looking at American policing and finding the lessons that they can apply in Iraq and Afghanistan. And similarly, the military started deploying troops preparing to be sent overseas into gang units in Los Angeles to see how anti-gang policing was done, with the idea that they could use those lessons for counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Naval postgraduate school partnered with the Salinas police department and was sort of using Salinas to test counterinsurgency domestically, so that it could harvest lessons that could then be used overseas.

The police literature is more cagey about it. William Bratton has written a little bit that hints in that direction, especially after his return to New York. But to really get a grip on how much this was a self-conscious project in the beginning it helps to go back to the police literature from the late 60s and early 70s. And there, the person who really stands out in this field is Daryl Gates. At the time I think he was a lieutenant in the LAPD. Eventually, he became chief, and he was chief forever, until the Rodney King riots eventually forced him out.

Gates famously invented the SWAT team, famously armed his commanders with a tank, famously—well, maybe less famously [he] reorganized the LAPD into platoons. But he also likes to take credit for incorporating the neighborhood watch into the LAPD, for incorporating the DARE program into the LAPD […] and Gates is very open about the fact that he got this range of ideas from studying what the US military was doing in Vietnam. And he sent his troops to train with Marines at Camp Pendleton, and he had his commanders studying guerrilla warfare and counter-guerrilla warfare with the idea of incorporating those lessons from overseas into domestic policing, specifically, because of the unrest that the United States was facing at the time. In that regard, he mentions the Black Panther Party in particular.

In the lifecycle of this exchange, we see that these lessons started in overseas adventures, then far-sighted police commanders incorporated them into the institution of domestic policing, and then a generation later, that trajectory sort of reversed, and military commanders were looking to American police to gain these skills, and very quickly the loop becomes so tight that it’s hard to know in which direction ideas and innovations are moving.


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